Friday, August 03, 2007
Bigger than Oprah: An interview with Yang Lan
"They are under orders not to let in any foreigners who want to do interviews."
It’s a pretty clear message, relayed to us by our intern as we sit in a people carrier on the outskirts of Beijing. We have arrived at a large, run down TV studio to interview China’s answer to Oprah Winfrey and “Image Ambassador” for the Olympics, Yang Lan. The studio’s security guards, however, seem to have other ideas.
Yang is at the pinnacle of her career. She has a TV audience in the hundreds of millions, a very lucrative TV production empire and has just been voted the most beautiful woman in China. Notably, she was instrumental in China‘s successful bid for the Games.
On the day of our interview with her for Talk Asia, she is presenting China’s version of Pop Idol (the UK talent show-turned-international-franchise which spawned shows such as American Idol). It’s called Olympic Songfest, a prime time, government-sponsored program seeking songs and performers for the Olympics. And despite arranging our interview slot, we don’t appear to be too welcome.
After some negotiation, we find ourselves in a smoke-filled waiting area outside the soundstage. Audience members, technicians and aspiring singers mingle, eating canteen-provided food and tapping cigarettes on overflowing ashtrays. Inside the studio, filming is under way. Our subject is serene on stage in the eye of the storm, as camera cranes swoop and the audience dutifully claps when prompted by floor managers.
Tall, elegant and focused, she holds as commanding a presence in person as she does on television. After a long conversation with a female contestant, kitted out in a tracksuit and baseball cap, the lights dim and the bubble machine switches into gear. The girl belts out a power ballad of the first order, with images of Chinese flags and past Olympic glories beaming out from a screen above her.
The taping of "Songfest" is fast and furious. Three weeks’ worth of shows gets crammed into a single afternoon of recording, with the set constructed and dismantled that same day. By 6pm – with three hours of work still ahead of her – Yang has lost none of her charisma, still finding the energy at one point to sing and shake her fist during a particularly rousing number. Then she disappears off to her changing room for a rest and costume change.
Our plan had been to film Yang giving Talk Asia presenter Anjali Rao a tour of her set during this time and - urged on by other visitors to her changing room – I knock and enter to discuss the shoot. Yang is sitting in a make up chair reading scripts and the look on her face tells me she is clearly appalled at my barging in uninvited. It is not an ideal first impression and I beat a hasty retreat.
Fortunately, such bumbling does not derail the shoot and we film a walk and talk around her set with two of our own cameras as a bemused studio audience looks on. Finally, we repair to another dressing room to set up for the main sit down interview: It doesn’t appear promising, with burnt out light bulbs, mosquitoes and cigarette butts on the floor. But after our cameraman extraordinaire works his magic, the room becomes an atmospheric den for speakeasy chat.
Her filming duties now complete at 9:30 pm, Yang arrives and takes her seat. She is charming, intelligent and extremely polished. It is not hard to see why she was selected as an ambassador by Beijing as she enthuses about the Olympics in a style befitting the most silver-tongued of Western politicians. But then, her position as a leading anchor and face of the Games could be considered political in contemporary China.
Yang delivers a searing performance after a 12-hour working day and falters only once. It is when we press her about media censorship - when the last time the government intervened in one of her programs. She takes a few minutes as she ponders her answer, before collecting herself and delivering a reply as polished as she is.
Despite discreet inquiries, we never find out who issued the security guards their orders.
-- From CNNI Talk Asia Producer, Nick Parker.
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